Review: ‘Panics,’ by Barbara Molinard; ‘Bad Handwriting,’ by Sara Mesa

PANIC, by Barbara Molinard, translated by Emma Ramadan
BAD HANDWRITING, by Sara Mesa, translated by Katie Whittemore

Virgil, Emily Dickinson, Franz Kafka: It has become something of a cliché, authors on their deathbeds requesting that their unpublished works be destroyed (requests that literary executors have a fortunate habit of betraying). But the prolific 20th-century French writer Barbara Molinard was unwilling to take any such chances, tearing her short stories to shreds as soon as she wrote them. The malevolent and disorienting tales in her 1969 collection, “Panics,” represent her only surviving work. Saved from destruction by Molinard’s friend Marguerite Duras, who estimated that these 14 stories represent “maybe a hundredth” of what Molinard wrote, they have been translated for the first time into English, by Emma Ramadan.

Molinard’s characters are haunted, confused, wandering as if in a fog, forgetting who they are and where they are meant to be. A man travels to a distant city for a meeting and immediately becomes lost; unable to remember where the meeting is or what it is about, he spends walking alongside a city wall, hoping it will lead him back to himself, or at least in some forward direction. A woman spends her day frantically preparing for the arrival of a plane in the evening, rushing to the airport to be there when it lands. She watches the passengers file out, then goes home alone, knowing that “tomorrow she would have to begin again, invent something else” with which to distract herself and muddle through the empty hours.

Through Ramadan’s spare and exacting translation, Molinard presents a terrifying portrait of violence and mental illness. The reader is immersed entirely in the minds of her characters, seeing the world only through their warped gases — “drowned in dream,” as Molinard describes one woman — with no purchase on external reality. These surreal, claustrophobic stories bear similarities to the works of Samuel Beckett and Leonora Carrington, but Molinard writes in a voice that is entirely her own. It is impossible not to let the author’s biography bleed into the reading of “Panics,” according to Duras these narratives are “neither invented nor dreamed,” but “a record of lived experience,” of the obscure mental affliction that led Molinard to repeat for years her “infernal cycle” of creation and destruction. Her stories were not written for any reader. Their existence seems like a miracle. Upon encountering them, there is the sense that one is stealing a glimpse of something intensely private, unmediated, a soul in anguish.

The short stories in “Bad Handwriting,” a new collection by the Spanish writer Sara Mesa, depict a similarly hostile and stifling world. Her characters are mostly young people, leading ordinary lives. One narrator describes herself as living in “a medium-sized city in a moderately developed country, in a normal neighborhood like so many other indistinguishable and interchangeable neighborhoods, the expansive working-class outskirts.” But beneath this veneer of normalcy there is an undertow of profound suffering that is not just internal, as in Molinard’s work, but also out in the world, looming at the edges of society, a poison seeing into the mundane.

In Mesa’s stories, the little dramas of youth unfold against a backdrop in which parents abandon their children and widowed grandmothers throw themselves from balconies. Young people lie and out rather than reveal their shame about the frightening things they have seen. In one story, a white teenage girl, unable to process or share the fact that she watched her pregnant sister kill a man, finds herself thinking racist thoughts about the Black manager of the hostel where she is staying; in another, an orphaned child fantasizes that her oppressive aunt will die violently. Mesa renders these lapses with a delicate force, animated by the knowledge that cruelty lurks in small gestures and idle thoughts; that, like a virus, it mutates and spreads.

PANIC, by Barbara Molinard | Translated by Emma Ramadan | 153 pp. | The Feminist Press | Paper, $15.95

BAD HANDWRITING, by Sara Mesa | Translated by Katie Whittemore | 168 pp. | Open Letter | Paper, $15.95

Charlie Lee is an assistant editor at Harper’s Magazine.

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